Let’s start with a joke:
A blind man comes into a bar with his service dog. He stands in the middle of the room and starts spinning the dog in the air by the leash.
“Wait a minute there, buddy,” says the barkeep. “What’re you doing?”
“Just looking around,” says the blind man.
If this story made you smile, it’s partly because your brain got to do what it loves to do: make connections. You experienced a brainbusy moment while you put together the given bits of information and puzzled it out, then the satisfying moment of understanding.
This manner of telling a story so that it activates the brain’s gap-bridging mechanism is most obvious in a simple joke, but it is necessary to all good stories. Putting the pieces together adds to reading pleasure. It may be partly what E. Dickinson was talking about when she wrote:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise;
As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.
Lately I’ve been listening to cognitive researcher V. S. Ramachandran’s The Tell-Tale Brain. He includes a discussion of what he calls the “peekaboo principle” — the idea that you can often make something more intriguing by rendering it less visible. He writes, “We prefer this sort of concealment because we are hard-wired to love solving puzzles, and perception is more like puzzle-solving than most people realize.” Might this be a scientific explanation why we enjoy stories told slant?
Telling it slant is a powerful way to engage your reader. It works because our minds are keyed to the pleasure of making connections. A mystery is most obviously constructed this way, but in some sense all stories are mysteries in that the reader must assemble clues to reach understanding.
If you are writing and illustrating a picture book, you have the opportunity to put that gap someplace between the art and words, like Julie Paschkis does in her brand new book Apple Cake, a Recipe for Love. If you were to read text alone, you would get a recipe. But with the illustrations, you see Alfonso’s heroic efforts to woo Ida. For instance:
This time it’s love as well as humor that bridges the gap. What better place to end this musing?